Britain is heading for a homelessness crisis. Here's how we stop it

A rough sleeper outside London's House of Fraser. Image: Getty.

If welfare reform continues on its current track, the UK is headed towards a homelessness crisis in the next decade. This stark warning from the Fabian Society, which mirrors Shelter’s own experience helping families on the brink of homelessness, comes at a time when public concern about housing has reached its highest level for 40 years

For Us All by the Fabian Society provides a comprehensive and long overdue analysis of the current trajectory of the UK’s welfare state. The research, supported by Shelter and Legal & General, is a vitally important kick-start to the discussions we need to have about the challenges of 2020 and beyond, and what some of the solutions might be. 

As the leading housing and homelessness charity in the country, Shelter’s focus is inevitably on how well the welfare state helps people to avoid homelessness and navigate the country’s failing housing market. We know that after six years of shrinking support the prospects are bleak for low income private renters. 

Rents are rising and increasingly families are finding that having a job doesn’t mean they can keep are roof over their head – the number of working households claiming help from housing benefit has increased by a third over the past five years. Yet 63 per cent of landlords say they prefer not to or don’t let to tenants on housing benefit. The loss of a private tenancy is currently the single leading cause of homelessness.

From this challenging start, the report paints a picture set to worsen dramatically by 2020. It warns that the current provision of support will be severely lacking, after years of cuts and freezes leave housing unaffordable for low income private renters in most areas. 

A safety net so out of step with even modest housing costs will be shameful and let down millions of us. The new government – and opposition - have an opportunity to heed this warning and engage in a long overdue conversation about what a sustainable welfare safety net could look like after austerity. Because if we don’t take action now, current policies could tip many more renters into homelessness. 

We fully welcome the report’s recommendation that support for housing costs should reflect actual rising rents. First and foremost, the safety net should ensure that people are protected from homelessness, and the first test of any new welfare system will be can it meet essential needs. Currently, we are in danger of failing this most basic test. 


With a new Prime Minister and fresh challenges ahead, now is the time to ask what the social security system should aim to achieve and how. The report makes clear that the challenges facing the welfare state are not the same as those which Beveridge confronted 70 years ago – and neither are the tools to fix them. Employment, society, technology and more have all changed beyond recognition. 

The report prompts all of us to consider our rights and responsibilities and considers drawing on a far broader range of safety net measures, including means-tested and contributory benefits alongside personal accounts. At Shelter we will explore in more detail what this means for housing. 

Genuine welfare reform will never appeal to governments seeking a quick or easy win, but if successful it promises a vital prize: a sustainable and affordable safety net that enables people to flourish through good times and ill, supporting them when they need it, and being supported by them when they don’t.  

Campbell Robb is chief executive of Shelter. This article previously appearedo n our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”